A congressional hearing about the situation at Pearson Air Museum drew strong criticism of the National Park Service by members of the House Natural Resources Committee.
HR 716, introduced by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, would transfer ownership of Pearson Air Museum and the surrounding 7 acres from the Park Service to the city of Vancouver. The Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Subcommittee heard testimony on it and two other bills at the Thursday meeting in Washington, D.C.
At the meeting, the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, called testimony by Herbert C. Frost, associate director of Natural Resource Stewardship and Science for the Park Service, “a mass of platitudes.”
“All the complaints that are written in your testimony are silly,” Bishop told Frost at the meeting. “You should be ashamed.”
The discussion mostly revolved around the Park Service’s seemingly arbitrary criteria for events at the site and the breakdown of negotiations for a contract to run the museum among the Park Service, the city of Vancouver and the Fort Vancouver National Trust, which had managed the site for the city since 2005.
Frost told the panel that if the Park Service turned the land over to the city, archaeological resources on the 7 acres would no longer be protected and wouldn’t have the same oversight.
“This bill would create a nonfederal area within the boundaries of the park,” Frost said. “These adjacent sites would be managed by different entities according to different standards for resource protection and special events management and would create not only confusion for the public but also friction in their management.”
He said the Park Service had been lenient with the trust in the past over what events should be allowed at the museum and that the clamping down on specific events in the past year had been an effort to remedy the situation.
“It just sort of ramped up over time,” Frost said, adding that in the past year, the Park Service “held the line” on event restrictions.
Fort Vancouver National Historic Site Superintendent Tracy Fortmann was not present at the hearing.
When asked by The Columbian if she had been invited to testify at the hearing, Fortmann simply replied “no.”
She also declined to comment on statements by officials at the meeting.
“The testimony is the National Park Service’s position,” she said of the written testimony submitted to the subcommittee by Frost.
Discussions between the Park Service and the trust broke down earlier this year in a dispute over who would manage the site. The Park Service wanted the museum and event scheduling to be under Fortmann’s control, with a strong focus on history, and the trust wanted to continue to run it as a community and educational site.
Elson Strahan, president of the trust, told the subcommittee he was puzzled at Park Service decisions to not allow events such as concerts to benefit the USO and military veterans when the Park Service allowed similar or larger events on the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
“We are puzzled by the issue of relevance and scale,” Strahan said in regards to what he called “arbitrary” enforcement of rules.
Frost said the Park Service had tried to work with the trust and city on a cooperative agreement to run the site.
“I think we are fully invested in private-public partnership,” Frost told the subcommittee.
Herrera Beutler and others on the panel disagreed with that statement.
“The message to the trust has been: ‘You are not partners. You are vendors,’” Herrera Beutler said. She added that she felt the Park Service “has resisted efforts” to negotiate with the city and the trust.
Frost said partnership would be “a better situation on many different levels.”
But Herrera Beutler said the Park Service had failed to reach out to the trust or the city in the past month since the trust turned the museum over to the Park Service on Feb. 6.
“I’m hearing partnership, partnership, partnership; but your actions speak so much louder than your words,” Herrera Beutler said.
In his written testimony, Strahan said he’s sad the situation has deteriorated to the point where it requires a legislative fix.
“It is very disappointing that it came to this. While the partnership between the NPS, the city and the trust was successful for many years, the relationship between the NPS and the trust recently began to inexplicably deteriorate, and the trust’s executive committee could not understand why,” he wrote.
Asked what specific archaeological resources might be threatened if the Park Service turned ownership of the land over to the city, Frost said, “There is a Native American cemetery that is right adjacent to those 7 acres.” He also spoke of the larger archaeological footprint of the National Historic Site.
Bishop, unimpressed by the explanation, then told Frost that “when you’re in a hole, you should just quit digging.”
Pressed for details on specific things actually on the land, with a clarification by Bishop that “I don’t want to hear any crap about viewscapes and noisescapes,” Frost again spoke generally about “archaeological resources.”
In response, Bishop stopped asking questions and entered a statement into the record.
“This is not about policy, this is about personality,” he said, accusing the Park Service of arrogance.
He said other bills on the agenda included similar actions by the Park Service in other sites around the country.
Of Pearson, Bishop said: “This should have been solved at the local level years ago.”
Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, was also critical of Park Service behavior at Pearson Air Museum and other sites at the meeting.
“The Park Service is badly managed with an arrogance that can barely be believe,” Young said.
The subcommittee didn’t vote on whether to forward the bills to the House floor, but members noted during the discussion that it seemed likely.
After the meeting, Herrera Beutler said that she was pleased overall with what she heard during the hearing.
“It was heartening to see strong support for our bill from other members of Congress — including the subcommittee chair,” Herrera Beutler said. “I hope the Park Service got the message that stall tactics and empty gestures are unacceptable. With this bill gaining support and advancing through Congress, I remain determined to help rectify the current mess and restore the Pearson Air Museum to our community.”
Casey Bowman, a spokesman for Herrera Beutler, said he expects the subcommittee will hold another meeting on the bill soon.
“We are in conversations with the committee to schedule a mark-up, which would move the bill through the committee and to the House floor,” he said. “We are hopeful it can happen as soon as next month.”
Sue Vorenberg: 360-735-4457; http://www.twitter.com/col_suevo; email@example.com.